It’s harvest season! For Maryland gardeners, September brings a bounty. The tomatoes, peppers, and melons that come piling in are both wonderful and overwhelming. Learning how to preserve your harvest is key to making the most of all your hard work in the garden.
What Can I Preserve?
From artichokes to zucchini, there’s a way to preserve almost anything in your garden. You can dry edible flowers, can dilly beans, and freeze broccoli. However, it’s worth noting that you cannot eat ornamental peppers, in case you were wondering.
How you preserve food will be determined by what you're processing. Safety is the most important part of food preservation, but you'll also want to choose a method that best preserves the food's texture and flavor.
Drying or dehydrating food is one of the oldest methods of preservation. There are two ways to dry produce: air-drying or using a dehydrator. Due to Maryland’s humid climate, most foods will need to be dried in a dehydrator. You can purchase an electric dehydrator, or you can make a solar dehydrator if you're feeling adventurous. Plans for solar dehydrators can be found online for free. Electric dehydrators come in a variety of styles and sizes. Purchasing one that has temperature and time adjustments is ideal if you’ll be using it a lot.
When drying food for storage, you want to get as much moisture out of it as possible, and then store it in airtight containers. For produce like tomatoes and herbs, this means that when they’re finished drying, they should be crisp and breakable. Otherwise, they’ll become moldy in storage. Some foods like raisins are high in natural sugar (a natural preservative) and don't need to be as dry.
Herbs like basil, oregano, and sage can all be air-dried or dried in a dehydrator. The best way to air-dry herbs is to hang small bundles upside down, in paper bags, in a cool, dark area of your home. The paper bags keep dust off and catch any leaves that may fall.
Using a dehydrator, herbs and other light foods, such as edible flowers, should be dried around 105°F, or the lowest setting possible on your dehydrator. This will help preserve their flavor.
Similar to sun-dried tomatoes, you can make dried tomatoes using a dehydrator. Plum and Roma tomatoes work best for drying. Cut your tomatoes into quarters or halves, then arrange them so that they’re not touching, skin-side down, on your trays. Dry tomatoes at about 135°F.
If you have fruit trees or berry bushes in your backyard, dehydrating is a great way to preserve what you can’t enjoy fresh. Slice fruit into bite-sized pieces and dehydrate at around 135°F. These pieces are great for eating with cereal in the morning, and can also be added to homemade trail mix or granola.
You can also blend fresh fruit and make fruit leathers. You’ll need parchment paper, or special sheets for your dehydrator, because the blended fruit will be a smoothie-like consistency when you first start. Spread your blended fruit into a thin layer and dry at 135°F until the layer is the desired consistency. Because the pieces won’t be fully dry, but still chewy, they should be stored in the refrigerator or frozen for long-term storage.
Drying vegetables used to be very common. Some people probably remember drying “leather britches” with their grandparents, which were green beans threaded and hung on strings. Today, canning and freezing tend to be more popular ways to preserve vegetables, though you can dehydrate them. To maintain the best flavor and consistency, vegetables should be blanched or dunked in boiling water for three minutes, then dunked in cold water and drained before dehydrating. Try drying vegetables like peas, summer squash, green beans, or sweet corn. They can be added to soups, stews, and sauces later in the year.
Related: Best Vegetables to Grow in the Heat
Much like dehydrating, there are two main types of canning: pressure canning and water bath canning. Water bath canning is the simplest method, but can only be done with high-acid foods like pickles or certain fruit and tomato recipes. Pressure canning is a bit more involved, but easier than you’d think! You can pressure can beans, carrots, sweet corn, and many other vegetables.
Can tomatoes in a variety of ways, including spaghetti sauce, whole or diced tomatoes, salsa, tomato juice, and tomato soup. The recipe you use will dictate whether you need to water bath or pressure can your product.
Many types of fruit can be water bath canned because they have high acidity, but some will need to be pressure canned. You can preserve fruits simply sliced in syrup or juice, or take it a step further and can recipes like apple sauce, jam, or apple butter.
As pickles have high acidity, they are generally safe to water bath can and fairly easy to make. You can find many recipes including cucumber, dill, and bread and butter pickles, as well as pickle recipes that use other vegetables like beets, radishes, beans, and even cherry tomatoes.
It’s possible to can both soup/dry beans and green/snap beans. Soup beans are canned less often, though doing so will make meal preparation easier in the future, as the beans won’t take hours to cook. For either type of bean, unless you’re making pickled beans, they’ll need to be pressure canned.
Sweet corn is a vegetable with low acidity, and will need to be pressured canned similarly to green beans.
Collards and other greens need to be pressure canned. Greens shrink significantly when they’re cooked, so they’re typically blanched before canning.
Freezing your garden produce is a really easy way to process a lot of food quickly. However, it’s not as simple as chucking food into the freezer. Many vegetables should be blanched, or dunked in boiling water for a few minutes and then rinsed in ice water, before they’re frozen. This stops the breakdown of cells and keeps the vegetables from getting mushy.
A delicious way to preserve your herbs is to make herbal butter. Finely chop any fresh herbs you have, such as basil, thyme, or dill, and mix them with butter before freezing. They’re a great way to add fresh flavor to meals throughout the year.
Herbs can also be frozen on their own. Freezing herbs on a cookie sheet, before transferring them to a container or bag, will prevent the leaves from sticking together. You can also finely dice them and freeze them in ice cube trays with broth or olive oil.
Before freezing, broccoli and cauliflower should be blanched in boiling water for three minutes, rinsed in ice water, and then drained. If you skip this step, you’ll end up with mushy broccoli when you go to use it. Like herbs. you may want to freeze your broccoli on a cookie sheet first to ensure that it doesn’t stick together.
You can freeze many of the same tomato recipes that are intended for eventual canning, including spaghetti sauce, tomato juice, tomato soup, and even whole tomatoes. All tomatoes should be heated and peeled before being frozen.
Just like broccoli and cauliflower, you can blanch and freeze green beans, summer squash, sweet corn, and greens. Tender greens only need to be blanched for one minute.
Don’t let all your hard work in the garden go to waste. This fall, learn to dehydrate, can, and freeze your garden produce so that you can use it throughout the winter. It will help you make delicious, healthy meals and save money!